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Miami University’s “Vibrator Play” Offers Life, Love, Health, and Technology – Always New and Changing

Sneak Peak by Kenneth Stern of In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play: Miami University

Miami In the Next Room imageMiami University’s Department of Theatre first 2016 production in its Gates-Abegglen Theatre, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl, opens October 21 at 7:30 p.m. This 2009 play wrestles with the age old issues of disruptive technology, sexuality, health, mental health, and relationships. Its setting is Victorian– an 1880’s prosperous spa community–but its characters struggles are current. The story concerns the concerns the (true) early history of the vibrator, when doctors used it as a clinical device to bring women to orgasm as treatment for “hysteria”.

“This play is the most compelling of the three Sarah Ruhl plays the committee considered,” said Katelyn Wood, the play’s dramaturge and Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre. “It aligns with Miami University’s 2015-2016 celebration of creativity and innovation,” explained Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, the play’s director (and Associate Professor of Theatre).

In a brief interview at the dress rehearsal intermission, Armstrong, and Wood discussed the challenges college actors have (though don’t we all?) handling the themse of sexuality.

“Sexuality is key for college students,” Armstrong said. Students wonder if they will be laughed at, if the audience wonders “what they are suppose to laugh at,” and the actors consider how friends and family will view their roles. Armstrong coached them to “play for our families.” From August’s auditions through five weeks of rehearsals, Armstrong and Wood discussed “ground[ing] the actors in history, that “not you, but [their] characters” live in the 19th Century. Stimulated on the operating room table, Mrs. Daldry (and Catherine) are having a “physical reaction.” The idea of sexual pleasure is foreign to them. “People did not know what sex looked liked and sounded like,” the professors said (though on stage Catherine demands to be kissed in the throes of her treatment).

“Our 21st century understanding of sexuality is not Dr. Giving’s (the male protagonist’s) understanding,” Wood pointed out. To that end, she and her team of dramaturgs (Meryl Juergens, Sloan Kyler, and Logan Uhtenwold) assembled a Dramaturgy Packet for the production (click here to view). Click here for the website for the play.

The many links to future reading cover the many themes the play explores including Separation of the sexes, Victorian Gender Roles and Marriage, and others.

The Victorian era conjures up a time of big, over-designed and over-built homes, stylized furniture and fashions, and women who were literally buttoned up in dress and buttoned down figuratively in their sexual mores. The staging is first rate under Ann Elizabeth Armstrong’s direction. The set captures an upscale 1880s Saratoga, New York doctor’s home, and Catherine Givings’s dresses, complete with complicated backside buttons and hooks, are beautiful, bordering on the lavish. Costume designer Melanie Mortimore and scenic designer Gion DeFranceso anchor the characters in the prosperous spa community of Ruhl’s play.

The play matches Miami’s year in another way: the humanities departments theme is senses: “What does it mean to be in [your] body?” is being pursued across the discipline, Armstrong pointed out.

She complimented Ruhl’s writing for its contrasting issues of technology with “nature:” more than once characters exit for walking the grounds, the first time in the rain, and once candles are lit when the electricity fail. This complicates the staging, technically (and in the end, snow falls); both are nice touches for a playwright that started out as a poet. “Every word is distilled. Every word means what it says, said Wood. That is a poet’s touch.

Sarah Ruhl is one of America’s best playwrights writing today. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony Award nominee for best new play in 2009. Her plays have been produced both on and off Broadway. Her2006 MacArthur Fellowship is among her many awards and honors. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama.

Performances are October 21–24, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. and October 25, 2015 at 2:00 p.m. in the Gates-Abegglen Theatre at Miami University’s Performing Arts Center.

Immediately following the performance Thursday there will be a post-show discussion: Senses and Sex. Stay and discuss with the dramaturgy team, Dr. Jacqueline Daugherty, Dr. Charles Ganlelin, Dr. Elisabeth Hodges, and students from the Humanities Center Altman seminar for a 30-minute talkback on the senses, human sexuality, and themes from In the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play).